There’s an old joke about a naval officer who sees a blip on the radar and gets on the radio to tell them to change course. The person on the other end of the radio refuses, telling the naval officer that he should change his course instead. Indignant, the captain of the ship takes the radio and says, “to the vessel at bearing 295, this is the captain of the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. You will divert your course or you will be fired upon.” Then the response comes over the radio: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”
The point is that communication is crucial. If you’re not on the same page as your customers, you’ll just be talking past them and you won’t accomplish anything. In the business world, that means understanding what clients and customers are saying and responding to them in a way that shows them you’re listening. There’s no exact science to what to say to someone, but we can offer some tips.
Talk Like a Human Being
The person on the phone shouldn’t sound like the emotionless face of a big company, they should sound like a person. In general (like we do in this blog), we tell people to use “we” pronouns when speaking on behalf of the company. But there’s a big difference between this blog and a one-on-one conversation.
Speaking as an individual feels personal and relatable. It feels like you’re working on the customer’s behalf, not the company’s.
It also helps to mirror the same words that the customer is using. You probably use some specific terms internally with your colleagues that the average customer wouldn’t use in their day-to-day life — most companies do. But insisting on the “proper” vocabulary, correcting the customer, or ignoring their phrasing makes it seem like you’re not listening.
Here’s an example. Let’s say an order is late arriving to a customer, so they call to ask about the holdup. If they say, “my tracking number says that the package hasn’t left the warehouse yet,” it won’t help to tell them, “the shipment is leaving our fulfillment center today.” Instead, it sounds like a canned line. The customer gets the impression that you’re memorizing what you should say rather than actually listening to their problem.
Instead, use the same phrasing the customer used in the first place. If you respond with “it looks like that package left our warehouse this morning and should be reaching you by Tuesday,” it shows them you’re addressing their specific concern head-on.
Another useful approach is to use “relational” words. Words like please, thank you, and sorry demonstrate concern and empathy, while words like yes and okay simply demonstrate agreement. This all sounds pretty intuitive, but word choice matters — and it can make or break a customer interaction.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take Charge
You’re the expert in this situation. Whether you’re calling the customer to help onboard them to a new product, address questions, or handle concerns that they’ve raised, there’s a reason that they’re talking to you.
By all means, start your conversation on an empathetic note. Use relational words to show the customer that you understand their situation, that you understand the challenges they’re facing and the goals that they’re chasing. But be careful that your tone isn’t too apologetic, or you may lose your authority. Instead, be sure to utilize solving verbs (get, go, call, do, permit, allow, resolve, etc.) as your interaction with your customer unfolds.
When you do take charge, be specific. If there’s a specific item or feature that the customer is concerned with, use that same terminology — “blue button-down” is more specific than “shirt.” Being specific helps further show the customer that you’re not just reading from a script. You’re listening to their precise needs and addressing them head-on.
You might find yourself in a situation where the customer is asking you for a recommendation. Maybe you offer a wide array of products and they’re having trouble narrowing them down. Again, be specific. Rather than phrases like “I love this one” or “a lot of people have enjoyed this one,” tell customers “I recommend our Premium subscription level for a business of your size” and be sure to include the why. Customers are free to choose what they want, and you shouldn’t pressure them into one option or another — but if they ask you for help, they want to know what you think. Don’t shy away from telling them.
What Not to Say, and How to Say it Better
We don’t want to script everything you say to a customer — that would defeat the point of trying to foster a more authentic relationship in the first place. There are a few phrases, however, that you’re better off avoiding entirely.
At first glance, “I will” seems like a good thing to say, right? It’s a promise to the customer. The problem is that customers don’t want to be told what you will do, they want to be told what you’re doing.
“I will” is too vague — it sounds like an empty promise. Instead of using “I will,” try to fill out your statement with useful, actionable information. Don’t say “I’ll send you the contract,” say “I’ve started drafting your contract, you should see it in the next 24 hours.” Don’t say “I’ll forward your suggestion to our team,” say “I’ve added your suggestion to a Google Doc where we track feature requests.” Avoiding “I will” statements forces you to come up with something more specific and more helpful.
We realize that sometimes you have to tell your customers “no.” The problems start when you tell them no without further context. Maybe they want a feature you don’t offer or a price point you can’t approve. In any case, the customer has thought about this request and has taken the time to contact you. They know what they want and why they want it.
The best thing to do is to meet them halfway — tell them why the answer is no. Whether the prices are set at corporate, the software can’t support that feature, the weather is preventing your shipping from going out, or whatever else the problem may be, there’s a reason for it other than “we don’t feel like helping you.” Customers will appreciate your candor, even if they don’t like the answer.
If you can suggest a workaround or an alternative, that’s even better. It shows that you genuinely care about solving the customer’s problem and helping them out, even if you can’t do exactly what they’re asking.
You Need To
Avoid telling a customer what they need to do. Whether you’re onboarding them as a new customer or following up with additional educational materials, you don’t know exactly what’s going on at their end — their technical ability, their familiarity with the product, or what else is impacting their day.
Telling a customer what they “need to” do sounds like you’re putting off helping them. They don’t want to be told exactly what to do, they want you to get them to the point where they can do the work themselves. Sometimes you do need the customer to help you out by checking something on their end, logging in, or providing you with other info, but your goal should be to encourage self-sufficiency.
The best course is to treat the customer like a member of your team. Remember: your goal is to help them understand your product so well that they don’t need your help anymore. Instead of telling them what they need to do, walk them through it with phrases like “now we can set up…” or “the best solution is if we…” Treating them like equals will show them that you’re on their side.
Signing As The Team
We know to use the customer’s name (or at least a friendly greeting) when we talk to them, but remember that customers don’t like feeling like they’re talking to a corporate monolith. To keep your interactions personal, sign off on emails with the name of the person handling the reply. If you’re on a big team, use the name of the team leader. Just don’t use “The [company] team.”
It’s All About the Customer
When it comes down to it, the whole idea behind a Customer Success team is to help the customer — whether you’re helping them choose a product, install a piece of software, set up their purchase, learn a new feature, or troubleshoot a problem.
A happy customer is a repeat customer, and the best way to make them happy is to make sure their needs are met. Since you can’t be there in person most of the time, you’ll have to handle those interactions over email or over the phone. A lot of communication is lost when you can’t see the person you’re communicating with — body language, facial expressions, even tone of voice. That’s why it’s so important to be careful with the number one tool at your disposal: your words.